Setting aside a statutory demand – Another useful summary of the law

Last year I added a post (see http://wp.me/p1UOHK-5y) referring to a clear, brief summary of the requirements for setting aside a demand, set out in the decision in Elite Catering Equipment Pty Ltd v Seroshtan [2012] VSC 241(link).

Another recent case following the same line of reasoning is worth noting.  The decision is Welldog Pty Ltd v World Oil Tools Inc [2013] QSC 180 (link), approving a summary of the law by Robson J in Rhagodia Pty Ltd v National Australia Bank Ltd (2008) 67 ACSR 367 at [91]–[94] (link).

Robson J’s summary has also been approved recently in a decision of Associate Justice Gardiner, in Troutfarms Australia Pty Ltd v Perpetual Nominees Ltd [2013] VSC 228 (link) and by the Victorian Court of Appeal, on appeal from Gardiner AsJ, in Troutfarms Australia Pty Limited v Perpetual Nominees Limited [2013] VSCA 176 (link).

The cited passage from Rhagodia reads as follows (emphasis added):

[91] In TR Administration Pty Ltd v Frank Marchetti & Sons Pty Ltd Dodds-Streeton JA (with whom Neave and Kellam JJA concurred) said:

‘[56] The court, in the context of an application to set aside a statutory demand, must determine whether there is a genuine dispute about the existence or amount of the debt or whether the company has a genuine off-setting claim.

[57] No in-depth examination or determination of the merits of the alleged dispute is necessary, or indeed appropriate, as the application is akin to one for an interlocutory injunction. Moreover, the determination of the “ultimate question” of the existence of the debt should not be compromised.’

[92] Dodds-Streeton JA further said:

‘[71] As the terms of s 459H of the Corporations Act 2001 and the authorities make clear, the company is required, in this context, only to establish a genuine dispute or off-setting claim. It is required to evidence the assertions relevant to the alleged dispute or off-setting claim only to the extent necessary for that primary task. The dispute or off-setting claim should have a sufficient objective existence and prima facie plausibility to distinguish it from a merely spurious claim, bluster or assertion, and sufficient factual particularity to exclude the merely fanciful or futile. As counsel for the appellant conceded however, it is not necessary for the company to advance, at this stage, a fully evidenced claim. Something “between mere assertion and the proof that would be necessary in a court of law” may suffice. A selective focus on a part of the formulation in South Australia v Wall, divorced from its overall context, may obscure the flexibility of judicial approach appropriate in the present context if it suggests that the company must formally or comprehensively evidence the basis of its dispute or off-setting claim. The legislation requires something less.’

[93] In Eyota, McClelland CJ of the Supreme Court of New South Wales said:

‘It is, however, necessary to consider the meaning of the expression “genuine dispute” where it occurs in s 450H. In my opinion that expression connotes a plausible contention requiring investigation, and raises much the same sort of considerations as the “serious question to be tried” criterion which arises on an application for an interlocutory injunction or for the extension or removal of a caveat. This does not mean that the court must accept uncritically as giving rise to a genuine dispute, every statement in an affidavit “however equivocal, lacking precision, inconsistent with undisputed contemporary documents or other statements by the same deponent, or inherently improbable in itself, it may be” not having “sufficient prima facie plausibility to merit further investigation as to [its] truth” (cf Eng Mee Yong v Letchumanan), or “a patently feeble legal argument or an assertion of facts unsupported by evidence”: cf South Australia v Wall.’

But if it does mean that, except in such an extreme case, a court required to determine whether there is a genuine dispute should not embark upon an inquiry as to the credit of a witness or a deponent whose evidence is relied on as giving rise to the dispute. There is a clear difference between, on the one hand, determining whether there is a genuine dispute and, on the other hand, determining the merits of, or resolving, such a dispute. In Mibor Investments Hayne J said, after referring to the state of the law prior to the enactment of Div 3 of Pt 5.4 of the Corporations Law, and to the terms of Div 3:

‘These matters, taken in combination, suggest that at least in most cases, it is not expected that the court will embark upon any extended inquiry in order to determine whether there is a genuine dispute between the parties and certainly will not attempt to weight the merits of that dispute. All that the legislation requires is that the court conclude that there is a dispute and that it is a genuine dispute.’

In Re Morris Catering (Aust) Pty Ltd Thomas J said:

‘There is little doubt that Div 3 … prescribes a formula that requires the court to assess the position between the parties, and preserve demands where it can be seen that there is no genuine dispute and no sufficient genuine offsetting claim. That is not to say that the court will examine the merits or settle the dispute. The specified limits of the court’s examination are the ascertainment of whether there is a “genuine dispute” and whether there is a “genuine claim”.

It is often possible to discern the spurious, and to identify mere bluster or assertion. But beyond a perception of genuineness (or the lack of it), the court has no function. It is not helpful to perceive that one party is more likely than the other to succeed, or that the eventual state of the account between the parties is more likely to be one result than another.

The essential task is relatively simple — to identify the genuine level of a claim (not the likely result of it) and to identify the genuine level of an offsetting claim (not the likely result of it).’

I respectfully agree with those statements.

[94] In TR Administration, Dodds-Streeton JA (with whom Neave and Kellam JJA concurred) cited this passage with apparent approval and noted it was also cited by the Full Federal Court in Spencer Constructions Pty Ltd v GAM Aldridge Pty Ltd.

Regards

Mark

As expected: Court finds against unregistered lessor in PPSA fight

The Supreme Court of NSW has decided a PPSA priority contest against the owner of leased Caterpillar equipment, in a fight with the receivers and managers of the equipment’s insolvent lessee.

The case is a warning to those used to ownership and title retention based forms of security.  The fact is that an owner/ lessor of equipment can lose its property to a secured creditor of a lessee upon VA or liquidation.

It also shows why it pays to get important agreements documented by a competent lawyer.

The case is Albarran and anor v Queensland Excavation Services Pty Limited & Ors [2013] NSWSC 852 (link).

The facts are available at the link in paras 1 to 10, which include at para 10 a useful statement of the issues and Brereton J’s conclusions on each of them.

Some of the more interesting facts are these:

  • the owner and lessor companies had a common shareholder, who appears to have informally financed the Caterpillar equipment and other vehicles from mainstream lenders;
  • the leases between the owner and lessor were not in writing, but were for more than one year.  There seems to have been an arrangement whereby the owner purchased the equipment on finance, and then passed possession on to the lessor in return for payment of the finance costs plus 10%;
  • the leases predated the transition to the PPSA;
  • that probably explains why the owner did not register its interest in the Caterpillars and why no written lease existed to make provision for the PPSA.

The decision is not unexpected given the circumstances:

  • the owner’s interest was a security interest in the Caterpillars – see s12(2)(i) and s12(3)(c) since the leases were PPS leases;
  • the equipment owner had failed to register its security interest, as owner;
  • lessor had executed a General Security Deed with its secured creditor which expressly gave security over the Caterpillars;
  • under s19(5) of the PPSA, leased equipment forms part of the lessor’s collateral capable of being subject of a security interest;
  • the secured creditor had registered the General Security Deed ;
  • the secured creditor prevailed because it had registered and the owner had not – s55(3).

See generally paragraphs 20 to 34 for the discussion of the nature of the security interests held by the owner and the secured creditor respectively in the Caterpillars. See generally paragraph 35 to 41 for the discussion of the priority contest.

The decision referred to many of the cases from other jurisdictions regarding priority at paragraphs 26 to 31.  The case that this reminds me of the most is Waller v New Zealand Bloodstock Ltd [2006] 3 NZLR 629, discussed and approved at paragraph 30:  just switch the horse for an excavator.

There are some other interesting points in the decision:

  • An attempt to argue that the transitional provisions applied failed, because the Caterpillar equipment was registrable in the Northern Territoty (where the vehicles were used) on a local motor vehicles register – this triggered an exception to the transitional provisions which would otherwise have protected the position of the lessor as an owner with rights under the lease predating the registration date – see paras 47 to 56 in particular;
  • The rights to possession of the owner under the lease on default by the lessee company are lost once the VA or liquidation commences, so the owner cannot repossess – see s267.  In other words, no residual rights of true ownership survive because they vest in the company – see paragraph 72 ff.

There are some useful articles discussing the decision that I have seen so far, see:

  • Carrie Rome-Sievers at this link
  • Allens at this link

Regards

Mark

Ironman Melbourne ticked off bucket list

On 24 March 2013 I completed one of my bucket list ambitions, an Ironman triathlon.

Thanks to a number of donors I managed to raise $1,580 for the red cross in the process.  Thanks to all of you who donated.

Here are some pics from the event, which I managed to complete in 15 hours, 9 minutes and 8 seconds.

It was a great day, lots of adrenaline and a massive sense of achievement.   Also the hardest 7 hours and fifty minutes ever on a push bike riding into 35 km/h head winds, and a tough way to run a marathon for the first time.

Some special thanks to my wife and family for their patience and support over 12 months of preparation, to Bayside Triathlon Club athletes (esp IM athletes) and coaches Rob McNamara and Clint VB.

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Tired of Christmas shopping? Queues may soon be a ghost of christmas past …

All

I have previously linked to the excellent series of monthly blog posts by James Stewart on issues in retail, usually focussing on insolvency articles.

After battling the crowds at Southland shopping centre on the weekend, James’ article on developments in the payments system gave me some hope things might improve for next year at least.  It seems your smart phone may soon replace the cash register.  Simply scan items as you collect them, put them in a bag in your trolley, pay at a smart terminal at the store exit and you are out of there.  No registers!

The article is at the following link.

Cheers

Mark

 

Seasons Greetings and a New and Very Difficult Challenge

Dear readers

A combination of a very busy 3 months and some technical issues with my domain name markmckillopbarrister.com have kept my posts to a minimum in the past few months.  The technical issues are now fixed so the link to my site should be fully functional.

With Chistmas almost upon us I will have some time to add some new material which will largely be published in the New Year.

I wanted to take this opportunity to wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season, and to plug a non professional endeavour I will be up to on Sunday, 24 March 2013.

I am doing the Melbourne Ironman Trialthlon race on that day, based at Frankston.  It is a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride and a marathon at the finish.  I hope to finish in about 13 to 14 hours.  Some information about the event can be found here. I have signed up to fund raise for the Red Cross for the event. So as well as supporting my webpage you may wish to give some support to the Red Cross!

Please help them if you are able, they are a great organisation and always at the front line for any big disaster that comes along (Bushfires, Tsunami, bombings etc).  And I guarantee that every donation made will help inspire me to finish.

A link to the fundraising page can be found here.

Merry Christmas

Mark

Tips for drafting longer, wider and more effective restraint of trade clauses – Pearson v HRX Holdings Pty Ltd (Full Court, FCA)

There is a well-known principle that a restraint of trade is prima facie void as contrary to public policy because it discourages competition and the restrained party from earning a living.  In considering whether a restraint of trade is void at common law, a Court will consider if as a threshold matter the restraint is no more extent than is reasonably necessary to protect the interests of the employer.  Usually the permitted period of restraint is fairly short and is of limited geographic extent.

Contrasting the usual situation, the Full Court of the Federal Court has recently upheld a 2 year restraint of trade clause against an executive and the co-founder of a consultancy business:  see Pearson v HRX Holdings Pty Ltd [2012] FCAFC 111.  The decision of the Court [link] demonstrates that if a restraint is carefully tailored by negotiation to the specific circumstances of the employer and employee, the parties bargain over the restraint’s key features and the reasoning for the duration and geographic reach is documented, and the employee receives independent advice, then restraints in excess of what might be considered the usual “rule of thumb” can be upheld.

The Facts

The appellant, Brett Pearson, was a “co-founder” of a human resources consultancy called HRX Holdings. He had established the business with Katrina Leslie in 2005.  Leslie was the effective controller of the company through shares held by her family trust.  Pearson had been a director and an employees of the business until his resignation in July 2011.  He left to join a competitor.

Pearson was the key employee of HRX:  it built the whole business around him.  He was at first the only employee.  By the time of his resignation, he was one of 130.  Pearson was a rainmaker.  The industry saw him as a leading innovator in the HR consulting field, was the primary presenter to clients and had an ability to establish and renew contacts with the senior executives of clients.  He also had full access to all of HRX’s confidential information, particularly its techniques for establishing and developing client relationships.

Pearson had negotiated an employment contract with HRX that was signed in December 2005, but was effective from February 2005.  The contract had been negotiated over a period of some months.  The restraint clause was a particularly heavily negotiated point:  both Pearson and Leslie had recognised that Pearson was the face of the business and the key person whom it was being built around.  Leslie gave evidence that the restraint of Pearson post termination was one of the biggest risks for the business to be managed.  Eventually they agreed that the restraint period would extend to two years (not 6 months as Pearson had first proposed).  Pearson obtained advice on all aspects of the contract from his own lawyers and accountants before he signed it.

The restraint clause is set out at paragraph [19] of the first instance judgment (HRX Holdings Pty Ltd v Pearson [2012] FCA 161) [link].  It included the following features relevant to the Full Court’s judgment:

  • a two-year restraint period;
  • no express geographic limit;
  • Pearson was to be restrained from (broadly speaking) participating in any way in what was defined as the “Restrained Business”, which meant “a business or operation similar to or competitive with the business of [HRX] …..at the time of leaving the company.”
  • Pearson was to be paid for the two-year period of the restraint (on conditions).

The Outcome

At first instance, the restraint clause was upheld.  Pearson appealed.  There were several issues of interest in the appeal.

First, whether the breadth of the restraint was such that it was contrary to public policy.  The Court upheld the decision at first instance that:

  1. The lack of a geographic restraint did not render the clause as a blanket restraint with worldwide operation.  Rather, it had to be read consistently with the purpose of the restraint, which was to  protect HRX’s business which was limited to Australia, New Zealand and other minor potential opportunities outside those markets, but was by no means global.
  2. The words “similar to or competitive with” had to be read together and construed consistently with the purpose of the restrain.  They did not prohibit activity in a “similar” but not “competing” business.  If the clause had been construed that way it would have been too wide.
  3. The limitation of the definition to businesses in which HRX was operating at the time of departure made the clause self-limiting, and less vulnerable to offending the rule against public policy.

Second, in applying the principle that the restraint would be permitted if it were reasonable, the Court took relied on the following matters:

  1. The restraint clause expressly acknowledged that Pearson was the key employee of the business and set out the reasons for that in some detail.
  2. Pearson had agreed to the definition of a Restrained Business without any negotiation.
  3. The extent of the negotiations of some months of the contract and over the period of restraint indicated a deliberate character to the execution of the contract including the restraint.
  4. The duration of the restraint was specifically negotiated.
  5. Pearson was to be paid during the restraint period.
  6. Pearson had sought and obtained independent legal and accounting advice.
  7. The parties expressly agreed that the restraints were reasonable.
  8. Pearson had been granted a free carry 8% shareholding, to be progressively released over the contract, as compensation for entry into the contract, and separately from his pay.
  9. Pearson and Leslie in combination had negotiated the contracts of various other HRX executives with similar (although shorter) restraints in them.

Pearson also argued that the restraint was unnecessary since confidentiality and non solicitation clauses operated post termination and that clause would protect HRX from exploitation of its confidential information by a new employer.  The Court quickly demised that argument.  Those clauses do not prevent the natural gravitation of clients, without solicitation, toward a key rain maker such as Pearson when he settles into a new role.

Conclusion

Although the case dealt with a very senior executive, it does have wider application.  It emphasises the benefit of an employer carefully reasoning the extent of the restraint so that it meets the employer’s needs and doesn’t exceed them, bargaining the clause with the employee, ensuring independent advice is taken or at least an opportunity to get it is available, using a fair a degree of documentation of that process and even recording the reasoning and bargaining process within the contract itself.  It also demonstrates that the external circumstances of the parties are very important, because the task of the Court is not limited to construction.  The Court’s role is also assessment of whether the restraint is reasonable having regard to public policy and to the purpose of protecting the employer’s interest that is key, which is an issue of fact.

Finally, the case has application beyond employment, to sale of business and other commercial agreements containing restraint clauses where similar issues arise.

Affordable Mediation in the Magistrates Court – the SLEM scheme

One of the enduring problems with litigation in the Magistrates Court is that costs are high compared to the value of the case.  As a consequence the cost of private mediation can be prohibitive.

However, a major step to address the problem is a scheme instituted by the Court, known as the “SLEM” scheme, that can reduce the costs of a private mediator and venue to as little as $1,450.

Last week,  I attended a mediation under the “SLEM” scheme for the first time.

“SLEM” stands for Single List of External Mediators.  It is a list of mediators for civil matters in the Magistrates Court who are regarded as suitable as external mediators, in the alternative to a registrar or deputy registrar.  Each mediator on the SLEM has agreed to limit their fee to the fixed rate of $1,100, for at least three mediations a year, to encourage access to mediation in the Magistrates Court.

In addition, where the mediator is a member of the bar, the Victorian Bar mediation centre will provide rooms for a SLEM mediation at a cost of $350, as part of the scheme.

The mediation I attended was conducted very effectively by Carey Nichols, a barrister mediator who is a member of the SLEM list.  The matter settled.

For information on the scheme see the Magistrates Court website link.

Regards

Mark

Clear, brief statement of Court’s approach to applications to set aside a demand

A recent decision of Justice Ferguson of the Supreme Court of Victoria is worth reading by practitioners defending or making applications to set aside statutory demands under s459G of the Corporations Act 2001.  The decision is Elite Catering Equipment Pty Ltd v Seroshtan [2012] VSC 241(link), an appeal against a decision by Associate Justice Gardiner.  The decision at first instance, at [2012] VSC 194 (link),is also worth reading.

Very briefly, the creditor was a company director who was seeking to recover a loan to the company.  The other two directors claimed the loan was in fact equity.  There was most probably a genuine dispute about the issue, since there were no clear records at the time the advance of the money to the company to determine its nature,  save for two matters:  one of the other directors had signed a letter acknowledging the debt, and the Company accountant had prepared the accounts showing the amount to be a director’s loan.  In both decisions the Court relied on these last two matters in deciding there was no genuine dispute.

The decisions are worth reading because, first, the Court refused the application:  perhaps a rare occurrence in itself.

Second, the reasoning in the decisions illustrates that whilst the threshold for establishing a genuine dispute is low and the Court ought not try the case on its merits, nevertheless it is permitted to investigate the matter.   In this case the factual basis of the application appeared at first glance to be plausible given the lack of clear evidence about the nature of the advance when first made, but required some investigation by the Court, which it was willing to do, to determine that given the later in time evidence there was no real dispute.

Third, there is a short but pithy summary about the task of the Court in determining these applications.

On appeal, Justice Ferguson stated:

7 In TR Administration Pty Ltd v Frank Marchetti & Sons Pty Ltd,[7] DoddsStreeton JA said:[8]

The court, in the context of an application to set aside a statutory demand, must determine whether there is a genuine dispute about the existence or amount of the debt or whether the company has a genuine off-setting claim. No in-depth examination or determination of the merits of the alleged dispute is necessary, or indeed appropriate, as the application is akin to one for an interlocutory injunction. Moreover, the determination of the “ultimate question” of the existence of the debt should not be compromised. (Citations omitted).

8 Her Honour also said:[9]

“As the terms of s 459H of the Corporations Act and the authorities make clear, the company is required, in this context, only to establish a genuine dispute or off-setting claim. It is required to evidence the assertions relevant to the alleged dispute or off-setting claim only to the extent necessary for that primary task. The dispute or off-setting claim should have a sufficient objective existence and prima facie plausibility to distinguish it from a merely spurious claim, bluster or assertion, and sufficient factual particularity to exclude the merely fanciful or futile. As counsel for the appellant conceded however, it is not necessary for the company to advance, at this stage, a fully evidenced claim. Something “between mere assertion and the proof that would be necessary in a court of law” may suffice.”

At paragraph 42 and 43 of the first instance decision, Gardiner AsJ  states;

42 The principles to be applied in assessing applications under s 459G of the Corporations Act are the subject of many authorities. The Court need only find that the plaintiff has a genuine dispute about the existence or amount of the debt. It has been said that this does not impose a particularly high standard. The grounds for alleging a dispute or an offsetting claim must not be spurious, hypothetical, illusory or misconceived. To quote from the Full Court of the Federal Court in Spencer Constructions v Aldridge,[2] it must be “real”.   In the well-known passage of McCelland CJ in Equity in Eyota v Hanave, his Honour said:

A genuine dispute connotes a plausible contention requiring investigation and raises much the same sort of considerations as a serious question to be tried arising on an application for the interlocutory injunction or extension or removal of a caveat. This does not mean that the court must accept uncritically as giving rise to a genuine dispute every statement in an affidavit, however equivocal, lacking in precision, inconsistent with the undisputed contemporary documents or other statements by the same deponent, or inherently and improbable in itself” it may not be – it may not having sufficient prima facie plausibility to merit further investigation as to its truth or a patently feeble legal argument or assertion of the facts unsupported by evidence.

43 In Powerhouse Australasia Pty Ltd v Viarc Pty Ltd,[3] DoddsStreeton J stated:

While it is not a very exacting standard, on the one hand mere, assertion of a dispute or offsetting claim, mere bluster or advancing grounds which are illusory or spurious or insufficiently particularised will not suffice. The court must not enter into the merits of the dispute, but it is not crossing the line in regard to its legitimate role on these applications to consider evidence which “bears on whether or not the asserted dispute or offsetting claim is genuine”. Indeed that is its necessary function.

Regards

Mark

Mediation part II – best and worst case scenarios if there is no deal

In my last post, space prevented an expansive discussion of the concepts of BATNA and WATNA (also known as BATNO and WATNO). These are concepts used in mediation to persuade parties to think of the financial consequences of not settling on the day. Literally, BATNA means “best alternative to not agreeing”, whilst WATNA means “worst alternative to not agreeing”. The idea is to work out the best and worst case scenarios for the client in financial terms if they don’t make a deal.

Of course the best case scenario should serve as a base line for an offer at settlement: rationally, a client should accept any offer meeting that figure since they cannot do any better by not agreeing and, say, continuing to litigate. They should also probably accept a deal that is worse than the BATNA since there is a risk that the outcome could be the WATNA, or something in between, if there is no agreement.

Paul Duggan has written an enlightening post on the issue (pun intended – you will see what I mean!) that I recommend to all readers.

Regards

Mark

Paul Duggan

Mediation approaching? Care for a back-to-basics checklist beforehand? Then look at Mark McKillop’s recent blog “Ten Tips about Mediation” (link below).

But first let me top up Mark’s top ten with two extras – the twin concepts of ‘BATNO’ and ‘WATNO’.

In approximately 36 A.D. a notorious persecutor of Christians was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus. Out of the blue (literally) he was knocked to the ground, blinded by a brilliant light and asked by a booming voice “Why do you persecute me so?” The traveller repented, recovered his sight and went on to a brief but spectacular career as St Paul, arguably the most famous convert, evangelist and martyr Christianity has ever produced.

How is this relevant to preparing for a mediation?

It absolutely isn’t. Damascus Road conversions never happen in mediations.

And yet it seems a rare mediation indeed that does not involve at least one party apparently banking…

View original post 369 more words

Ten Tips about Mediation

I have recently appeared at about half a dozen mediations for a liquidator regarding very similar preference claims over a period of two months.  It was interesting to see how some strategies employed by us and the other parties worked.  Some tips coming out of the process:

  1. When booking the mediation, be dubious when the other side wants a half day mediation.  It is extremely rare for a mediation to be done before lunch where the case has any significant value.
  2. Prepare a mediation position paper with the client’s input, even if one is not required or exchanged, for use as speaking notes for the open session.  Focus on just a few key issues that make a real difference to the outcome of the case and try to put the arguments about those issues in plain language that can be understood by the decision-making clients on the other side of the table.  There is nothing less effective than a dry recitation of the pleaded issues in legal language.
  3. If an opponent suggests that an open session can be skipped to save time, resist:  you will find that you have to tell the mediator about your position anyway and some of your message will be lost in the retelling.
  4. In the open session, without completely ignoring your opponent lawyer, you should mainly address the clients on the other side of the table.
  5. It is not unusual for round table discussions to become expansive.  Clients can feel the urge to say perhaps more than they ought to, particularly about issues of fact or their (mis)understanding of some legal point.  You can use these situations to your advantage by dealing with the point in issue when addressing those clients in the open session.
  6. Introducing new issues at a mediation can be a very effective way of putting a party off-balance.  But be prepared for the other side to discount the new issue on the grounds they have had no notice of it.
  7. Know the financial stakes if you don’t settle.  It surprised me that in a number of cases the defendant attended without calculating their exposure to costs and interest at the mediation date, or their potential liability at trial if they lost.
  8. Try not to let parties get away with claiming they do not have authority to go over a certain figure to settle:  it is usually nothing more than a brazen negotiating tactic.  You will usually hear this line at about 4:45 pm when the parties are losing steam.  It is easy to give ground, in order to achieve a deal on the day.  Don’t do it!
  9. Even if the attendees do not have proper authority as a matter of fact, the party is usually in breach of the terms of the mediation agreement by reason of it, and if the matter cannot settle the other party is well within their rights to threaten to abandon the mediation and seek indemnity costs of attending.  The appropriate response is to point those matters out, and tell the other side to get on the phone to get the necessary authority.
  10. Have terms of settlement drawn up in advance of the mediation and have a laptop handy on which they can be edited.  Time saving at least one hour, which could make the difference between getting out at a reasonable hour or not.

Regards

Mark

High Court decision gives broad reading of officeholders’ statutory duty of care and diligence

The High Court delivered judgment today in ASIC’s regarding the directors of James Hardie Industries Ltd (JHIL) (link).  The Court also delivered judgment in a related appeal by the “General Counsel and Company Secretary” of JHIL at the time,  Peter Shafron, against ASIC (link).

These appeals involve the infamous separation by JHIL of certain asbestos making subsidiaries that had significant exposure to asbestos related diseases.  Readers may recall that JHIL represented at the time of the separation occurring that the subsidiaries had sufficient funding to cover future claims against them.  It turned out they did not, by a long shot.

ASIC pursued the directors and officers of JHIL for breaches of various statutory duties arising out of the transaction.  He was subject to various penalties as a result.

The decision regarding Peter Shafron is interesting because it illustrates the breadth of the statutory duties imposed on an “officer” as defined in section 9 of the Corporations Act (link).  The Court has made clear that it is the actual responsibilities of the office holder and their skill set in that field that define the area within which duties of care and diligence apply.

In brief terms, Shafron was found at trial and affirmed on appeal to have breached his duties under s180(1) (link) to JHIL as its “joint General Counsel and Company Secretary”.  Two breaches were the subject of the appeal.    The first breach was that he failed to give the board of JHIL advice that certain information in a deed involved in implementing the separation should have been disclosed to the ASX.  Second, he failed to advise the board that cash flow modelling used to estimate JHIL’s exposure did not take into account superimposed inflation of the cost of meeting medical claims (being medical costs inflation over and above the general level of price inflation), and accordingly was not an adequate guide to the required level of provisions.

Shafron argued that his alleged contraventions could not give rise to a breach of s180(1) because they arose from work he did in his capacity as General Counsel, and not in his capacity as a statutory officer.  He argued that he could only be liable for a breach of his statutory responsibilities as company secretary, which he argued were generally administrative and did not involve providing legal advice.  He argued that whatever duties he had as in the role of General Counsel were not within the statutory responsibilities of a company secretary.

The High Court disposed of this argument swiftly by means of the construction of s180(1).  The Court held that on any reading of s180(1)(b), the duties of care and diligence on the office holder are in respect not only of the statutory responsibilities of the office, but also in respect of whatever responsibilities that particular office holder has been given or has assumed within the corporation.   The High Court’s analysis is at paragraphs [18] to [20] of the judgment.  In particular at para [19] the Court held:

…..The effect of par (b) of s 180(1) is to require analysis of what a “reasonable person” in the same position as the officer in question would do. His or her position is not adequately described unless regard is had both to the office held and to the responsibilities that the person has. Further, Mr Shafron’s submissions ignored the evident difficulty in defining, for the purposes of limiting the conduct considered, the content of “the office held” where a person is an officer by virtue of par (b)(i), (ii) or (iii) of the definition of “officer” in s 9. A construction which avoids that difficulty, and avoids a more limited operation of s 180(1) in relation to some officers than in relation to others, is to be preferred.

In this case, Mr Shafron’s responsibilities were found by both the primary judge and the Court of Appeal to have included the tendering of relevant advice (including legal advice) about disclosure requirements. As the Court of Appeal rightly said:

“A company secretary with legal background would be expected to raise issues such as potential misleading statements (in relation to the draft ASX announcement) and disclosure obligations (in relation to the DOCI) with the board. Ordinarily it might not be the same with respect to a matter such as the JHIL cash flow modelling, which required particular expertise. But Mr Shafron had a quite close involvement with the cash flow modelling, and raising the limitations of the cash flow model [based on the material Mr Shafron had obtained from Trowbridge] is by no means a legal matter for the attention of general counsel; the involvement, and raising the limitations, in our view fell within Mr Shafron’s responsibilities as company secretary.” (emphasis added)

That is, Mr Shafron’s “responsibilities within the corporation” extended to the several subjects identified. Once it was found that his responsibilities extended to those subjects, the question became whether Mr Shafron undertook those responsibilities with the requisite degree of care and diligence.

Regards

Mark

Unit Trusts can expose personal assets in bankruptcy

Most business people know that they should shelter their assets by keeping them out of their own name, so that if they go bankrupt, those assets are not available to the trustee in bankruptcy.

But it’s also important to make sure that the entities that control those assets are still under the individual’s direct or indirect control in the event of personal bankruptcy.

Recently a client* learned a hard lesson that was fortunately only a near miss.

He set up his interest in a business so a trustee company held it.  The company was trustee of a unit trust.  The only unit holders of the trustee company were he and his wife.  The only shareholders of the trustee company were he and his wife.  They were also the only directors.

The trustee company owned one third of a development site.

In the course of the business he and his wife had given personal guarantees over a business loan.  Eventually the lender made a call on the guarantee for an amount of over $10 million.  The guarantee had a very nasty clause in it (which he and his wife had not read) by which they agreed to give a mortgage over all of their real property to secure the loan.

When it became apparent that the loan may go bad, the lender placed caveats over all of the real property in the name of he and his wife which included 2 investment properties and a family home.

The client could not service the first mortgages on the family home and the investment properties, or service the business loan of which he was guarantor.

After a period the client and his wife each declared bankruptcy.

After they had declared bankruptcy, an opportunity arose to restructure the business and settle with the lender on favorable terms.   The restructure required the transfer of the trustee company’s interest in the development site to a Newco.

Problem?  The units in the unit trust vested in the trustee in bankruptcy of the client and his wife.  They had ceased to be directors of the trustee company because they were bankrupt.  And the shares in the trustee company vested in the trustee in bankruptcy.  Further, the trust deed reserved the power to change trustee to the unit holders alone. (Frequently, the appointor of the trust, usually a family member, has that power, but that was not so in this case)

So the client and his wife could not cause the trustee to execute a transfer or change trustee to a new entity who could. And the trustee (ITSA) would not assist.

In the end, the client had a near miss, more through luck than anything else.  It turned out that the units in the unit trust were held by he and his wife as trustees for another trust, their family trust, which fortunately was a discretionary trust.  The trustee of that trust was a different company with different directors.  The trustee of that trust was able to direct the trustee in bankruptcy to transfer the units to it.  Then it was able to change the trustee under the provisions of the trust deed, and the new trustee could execute the transfer.  Phew that was close!

So what are the lessons of this near miss?

  1. Unit trusts are not very good at sheltering personal assets because the units will vest in the trustee in bankruptcy.  It is possible to use a hybrid unit trust/discretionary trust structure in their place.
  2. If for tax reasons unit trusts structures are necessary, the unit themselves should not be held by the individual seeking to shelter assets beneficially.  They should be held by another entity that is sheltered.  The same goes for the shares in the trustee company.
  3. Be careful to have directors of the trustee who are not likely to go bankrupt if the sheltered individual also goes bankrupt.  Preferably appoint another family member not involved in the business, or an accountant or lawyer (if one is willing).
  4. Reserve a power to change the trustee to the appointor or to a family member in the trust deed.

Regards

Mark

*The facts have been changed slightly to protect the client